City Council to Consider New Residency Restrictions for Sex Offenders. Will They Work?

Wednesday, when it returns from its month-long July hiatus, the Dallas City Council will be briefed on Mayor Mike Rawlings' proposal for increased limits on where Dallas' registered sex offenders can live.

The city's only current restriction forbids supervised sex offenders -- those on probation or parole -- from living with another supervised sex offender. Rawlings' proposal is short on details, but it would set a distance requirement which supervised and unsupervised sex offenders would have to reside beyond "premises where children commonly gather."

A presentation released in advance of the briefing gives information on restrictions in other cities and states, both in Texas and in the rest of the country. Most cited include radii between 500 and 2,000 feet from things like playgrounds, schools and day-care centers for the distance limits.

The push for the new rules comes on the heels of a May WFAA report that highlighted Dallas' lack of an ordinance to restrict registered sex offenders' movement or where they could live.

"It's a false sense of doing something," Phil Taylor, a licensed professional counselor who has treated registered sex offenders for decades, says. "There are a few guys that will reoffend. The question is, what reduces the likelihood that they will reoffend?"

Study after study shows that the answer is not residency restrictions.

A May 2012 Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior article concludes:

Given the paucity of data suggesting that sex offender residence restrictions prevent recidivism and the growing body of evidence indicating that housing policies increase transience, homelessness, and unemployment, these laws may be contraindicated. The belief that keeping sex offenders far from schools and other child-friendly locations will protect children from sexual abuse appears to be a well-intentioned but flawed premise. The data from this study do not support the widespread enactment of residential restrictions for sexual offenders. The time that police and probation officers spend addressing sex offender housing issues is likely to divert law enforcement resources away from behaviors that truly threaten our communities.

The restrictions often lead to the clustering of sex offenders, such as in the shanty town that developed under a Miami bridge when that city passed its restrictions or the Davenport, Iowa, trailer park that was one of the only areas within city limits that complied with a 2,000-foot exclusion zone.

Given the difficulty of finding a place to live, registered sex offenders can become destabilized or homeless. When that happens, they are less likely to report their whereabouts to the state, increasing the risk to the community.

"Well over 90 percent of these [sex offenses] are committed in the home or by someone known and trusted to the victim," said Mary Sue Molnar, the executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, a group that advocates for reforms in sex offender registration policies.

Those offenses, and other types of recidivism, have been shown to have no relation to the offender's proximity to the areas the type of law proposed by Rawlings would exclude them from.

"It's borne of panic, and it's ineffective and we shouldn't spend our time doing those kind of things," Taylor said. "It's a despised population and very few people are willing to defend the rights of a despised population."

Update: 10:47 a.m.: Sam Merten, the mayor's manager of public affairs and communications, gave Unfair Park a call to emphasize that the mayor does not have a specific proposal in mind, but just wants the council to consider the issue due to the concerns raised by the WFAA report.

"As long as it doesn't put an unfair burden on DPD or anyone else involved, I think it's definitely worth looking into," he says.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young